Cracking the NYC jazz scene with PDA winner Matthew Sheens

Tuesday, 13 Sep 2016

Pianist and composer Matthew Sheens took out the APRA Professional Development Award (PDA) for Jazz in 2013, and has just released his third album, Cloud Appreciation Day, which has been a few years in the making. We caught up with him on his recent Australian tour to get the lowdown on life in his home of the past five years, New York City.

“You’re just spoilt for choice,” says Matthew of the pool of musicians available to perform his work in New York. Hailing from Adelaide, the young composer has found himself in the company of some of the world’s best players since he relocated to NYC in 2011.

“I've been fortunate to work with a pretty famous bass player, John Patitucci, who plays with Wayne ShorterChick Corea and Herbie Hancock,” he says. “I've stumbled into a situation where I get to play with him a lot, so getting him to play on my work has been a nice experience that I wouldn't have been able to get here (in Australia).”

John Patitucci also appears on Sheens’ new album Cloud Appreciation Day, which was recently released by Berlin label QFTF. The album was recorded over two years across Sydney and New York and saw Matthew put part of his PDA prize – a day of recording at Studios 301 – to very good use.

“I couldn't believe how amazing it was,” he says of the studio. “Because I was living in the US, I had to cram in a day of recording on a trip back, and write the material on that trip.”

Recording in two different cities also meant that he needed to find a studio in NYC with a piano that matched the sound of the one used in Sydney. He ended up settling on two: The Samurai Hotel Recording Studio and Big Orange Sheep.

“In New York, every album, I've had to research as many recording studios as possible because as a piano player, there's an extra element of not only making sure the recording studio is amazing, but seeing what the condition of the piano is like,” says Matthew.

“A lot of these recording studios have a whole lot of history, along with the people that use them. And so sometimes I'm mixing an album and some ridiculously famous person will walk in or the engineer will say, ‘Oh, I've got to set up for Bjork tomorrow.’ That was actually my second album I think. Bjork was coming in the next day and they had to set up for 20 hand drummers.” 

So how does a New York newbie make inroads into the local jazz scene?

It takes a while,” says Matthew. “The typical way that people get a foot in the door in New York these days, just because of the nature of music schools, is that they go to a school in New York and then while they're studying they have a bit of a foot in the actual working music scene,” he says. “Who your friends are is who you play with really.”

But for Matthew, who completed a masters at New England Conservatory in Boston before moving south, it was a little tougher to get a foothold in NYC, given that most of his classmates remained in Boston or returned to Europe after studying. Instead, friends from home helped him get connected.

“Strangely, one of my best friends from high school did his masters at Juilliard in classical music, so I kind of stole all of his classical music friends! They were my first music friends,” he says.

“Just being visible, going to gigs and engaging with the city all the time is really how you make friends and get to play with people and know people. In Adelaide or Melbourne or Sydney, if you live there for maybe two years or so, you'll pretty much know everyone in the scene, but New York is just this weird infinite universe. You'll never know everybody.”

But music schools are definitely not the only way to break into the New York scene he says.

“I have a friend who moved here two years ago. He uprooted his life at 30 and moved to New York from Melbourne, so I was able to witness him go from bare bones nothing to making things happen - without going to music school or any sort of institution. He just went out and made friends and did sessions almost every day…making that almost a career. That becomes your building blocks for getting gigs.

“That can be kind of challenging and scary in an environment and a country where you don't know anyone, but just making that such a priority that it actually becomes part of your career, at least for a little while, is important.”

As for the less exciting practicalities of being an Australian in the US, Matthew has a key piece of advice for other artists wanting to relocate.

“Apply for the Green Card lottery when you’re not even there!” he says, referring to the Diversity Visa Lottery, which provides the opportunity to enter a draw for permanent residence in the US.

Matthew counts himself lucky to have “stumbled upon” a Green Card this way, after spending many years jumping through hoops to get various different visas, including an E-3 visa which he obtained as a music teacher. He sees visas and immigration as the only roadblock for artists considering the move.

“If you have the drive to uproot your life and go somewhere, then you're probably going to have the drive to make something happen for yourself,” he says.


More on NYC life with Matthew Sheens

What’s your favourite place to play?

A place called the Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn which is really cool for chamber music. Although it's not in the heart of the city so it's really hard to get people out there. My favourite clubs in the city are in the West Village - that's kind of the heart of things. I do this rehearsal at the Lincoln Center every week and I haven't played an actual concert there but it's an amazing space. Anywhere I don't have to bring a keyboard is amazing, typically. 

Where do you rehearse?

I try to do that in my apartment (Uptown, on the border of Harlem and Washington Heights) which is really tricky because the sound between people's apartments travels very fast, especially in my apartment, and my neighbours hate me! I have a piano and I would love to have a drum kit in there as well but I don't think that's going to happen. The sound just travels so much. I hear everything that goes on in their apartment as well!

How often do you play?

It goes in seasons, really. Sometimes there's almost too much going on and then sometimes, typically summer, I find very quiet because I think a lot of people go out of town. It turns into a different city in the summer. So I find myself here (in Australia) a lot of the time in the summer months - I get perpetual winter and no summer. 

How has the city influenced your composition work?

It's hard to say because it's just become my home now, but - this might sound clichéd - maybe the urgency of the city might have some sort of impact. I guess there's this condition that New Yorkers have, I can't remember the exact term, but it's this fear of missing out on something. So when you're not out at night, you know you're missing out on something awesome. If I'm not playing, I try to spend a lot of time out at people's concerts, just getting a constant stream of really interesting music. I think I probably write more after being really inspired by stuff like that. The city just constantly throws amazing things at you if you want it to.

Matthew Sheens photo by Charles Quiles


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